The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.
iStock

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

Why Are Elections Held on Tuesdays?

iStock/YinYang
iStock/YinYang

Ever wonder why Americans always vote in federal elections on Tuesdays? There are a few reasons—including a little something to do with the horse and buggy.

Between 1788 and 1845, states decided their own voting dates. In 2012, then-Historian of the Senate Don Ritchie told NPR that strategy resulted in chaos, a "crazy quilt of elections" held all across the country at different times to pick the electors—the white, male property owners who would cast their votes for president on the first Wednesday of December. In 1792, a law was passed mandating that state elections be held within a 34-day period before that day, so most elections took place in November. (Society was mostly agrarian; in November, the harvest was finished but winter hadn’t yet hit, making it the perfect time to vote.)

The glacial pace of presidential elections wasn't a huge issue in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—communication was slow, so results took weeks to announce anyway—but with the advent of the railroad and telegraph, Congress decided it was time to standardize a date. Monday was out, because it would require people to travel to the polls by buggy on the Sunday Sabbath. Wednesday was also not an option, because it was market day, and farmers wouldn’t be able to make it to the polls. So it was decided that Tuesday would be the day that Americans would vote in elections, and in 1845, Congress passed a law that presidential elections would be held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally ran in 2012.

Titanic II Is Preparing to Set Sail in 2022, and You Can Be On Board

Roderick Eime, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Roderick Eime, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Titanic is getting a sequel. No, James Cameron isn’t making another movie. A nearly identical replica of the doomed ship is scheduled to make its maiden voyage in 2022, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, giving superfans the chance to experience the journey for themselves.

Dubbed the Titanic II, the new ship will start out in China, where it's under construction now, traveling to Dubai before picking passengers up in Southampton, England and following the original vessel’s 1912 route across the Atlantic to New York City. Of course, the original R.M.S. Titanic never reached its destination. It struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, and more than half of the ship’s 2200 passengers perished when it sank.

Although the modern ship’s design is modeled after the original, there are a few notable differences. It will hold slightly more passengers—2400 in total, plus a 900-person crew—and will be 13 feet wider to meet modern regulations (and increase stability). Plus, passengers can rest easy knowing that the newer version is equipped with modern safety and navigation features, as well as detailed evacuation plans.

The superstitious probably won't be snatching up tickets for a ride on the revived Titanic, but history buffs and fans of the movie will likely appreciate the ship’s vintage decor and attention to detail. The Titanic II will have the same cabin layout, public areas, swimming pool, Turkish baths, and grand staircase as the original ship. When construction is completed, there will be nine floors and 840 cabins, and passengers will have their pick of first, second, or third-class tickets.

The Titanic II is the brainchild of Australian businessman Clive Palmer, who established a shipping company called Blue Star Line in 2012 in order to make the project a reality. The ship is under construction now and is expected to cost $500 million. It was originally slated to set sail in 2016, but financial issues delayed the departure first until 2018, and again until 2022.

After completing its journey to New York, the Titanic II will “circumnavigate the globe, inspiring and enchanting people while attracting unrivaled attention, intrigue, and mystery in every port she visits,” Palmer tells MSN.

Tickets aren't on sale yet, but keep an eye on the Blue Star Line website for updates.

[h/t AJC]

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